REVIEWS: Respect: A Musical Journey of Women (Or...WOW, the line up for the women's washroom is really, really long!)


Yesterday I took in a matinee ofRespect: A Musical Journey of Women(written and created by Dorothy Marcic) at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts where it is currently playing an open run.

From the colorful retro graphic design to the fun trinkets sold in the lobby (boas, '60s sunglasses) you know this is supposed to be fun. Or maybe if you're walking around wearing a stripper boa, you better be wearing dark glasses so no one recognizes you...

The show is a musical revue that traces the progress of women from the days of corsets to today, using music from the various periods (sorry) along the way. The author, Dr. Dorothy Marcic, is played by an actress (Karan Pappas) who uses her female family members' various stories (Aunt Lilly, her mother, etc.) over the years to pull us along.

In the author's note in the program Dr. Dorothy Marcic says:

Respect is a result of five years of research, writing and development. It began when I was asked to do a presentation in 1999 at a Bahai Social and Economics Development since equality of men and women is one of the principles taught by Baha ullah. The world of humanity has two wings. One is women and the other men. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly. Because I was experimenting with music in my leadership programs, I decided to add some music to those presentations. As I did the research to find a few songs, I realized that popular music tells the whole story of women in the 20th century. After the Orlando presentation, an agent got me a book contarct and I recorded some CDs. Thus began my new career in the one-woman show, which I have performed all around the US and the world, and which now has evolved into the four-woman musical theatre production which opened in its first professionally-produced commercial run at the Cuillo Center for the Arts in West Palm Beach FL on July 16 2004, running through October 2004. Now it is playing in Ft. Lauderdale and Chicago.

And based on the audiences reaction yesterday, Chicago women love it. The only men in the place were the band (of course), the house manager, the guy serving drinks, the guy taking tickets, and the four or five husbands along for the ride.

The cast of four is wonderful, with great voices. The strongest and most charismatic of the bunch is Jeanette Fitzpatrick whose rendition of "It Must Be Him" is the comic highlight of the show. The songs (61 in total!) are fabulous hits past and present. They range from the Betty Boop-delivered "I Wanna Be Loved By You" to the disco classic "I Will Survive". (I'd love the see the legal work that went into getting permission to use all these songs.) For the most part they were well arranged and sung with so much joy and energy that I wasn't pining to hear the original version.

Having said that, I felt the whole show really didn't hold together and it felt simplistc and a tad preachy. I didn't get enough of the "stories" to really make the songs meaningful. It felt like I was at the taping of an Oprah show (minus the great door prizes). Given the strong feminist message I assumed was coming in the show, it starts off surprisingly (or not surprisingly...) with Dorothy relating a visit to a cocktail party thrown by an ex-beau who has now taken up with another woman. She proceeds to cattily ("Meow, saucer of milk for Table 2") mock this new girlfriend in the dramatized conversation before launching into the singing and dancing of the show.

I also find it interesting that this "female musical history" is expressed with songs written primarily by men (only 3 of the 61 songs are written solely by women -- "At Seventeen" by Janis Ian, "Wide Open Spaces" by Susan Gibson and "Born a Woman" by Martha Sharp).

In fact, the songs touted as the big feminist anthems (see how far we've come) were written solely by men ("I Will Survive", "These Boots Are Made for Walking", "You Don't Own Me"). Conspicuously absent, at least to me, were songs by Carol King from her history-makingTapestry album.

The other bone I have to pick with the show is the ridicule of some of the older songs: "I Enjoy Being A Girl" by Rodgers and Hammerstein was sung by Barbie dolls doing a robot dance. Grrrrrr.

It said in the program that song was being used by special arrangement: I wonder if theRodgers and Hammerstein Organization has seen the show...

Or Lionel Bart's "As Long As He Needs Me", which to me is bloody brilliant song because it expresses a very real, true complex emotion, that I'm sure women and men alike still experience today.

And then, to top things off, they mock The Sound of Music's "For Good" and "Sixteen Going On Seventeen". Double Grrrr. And another Rodgers and Hammerstein slur: Does the RHO really know what's going on here?

And what's with ending the show with "This One's for the Girls", a mediocre country pop hit (Martina Mcbride made it a hit). It includes lyrics like "...this one's for all the girls about 42, throwing pennies into the fountain of youth..." What kind of strong feminist message is that? I'm a 42-year old woman, so my one concern should be that I'm getting old?

Maybe this the key problem with using pop hits in the musical theater format.

Musical theater songs are exactingly crafted to express the emotion and feelings of a character. Using songs after the fact (pop hits) to demonstrate a point theatrically is a bit like shooting darts blindfolded -- you hit in the vicinity of the target but you rarely hit a bullseye.

However, I do applaud the overall goal of the show, which is to celebrate women. And the audience left with big smiles on their faces. Now I think I'm going to go out and buy the sheet music for "Johnny Get Angry"...

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